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Wrapping Up a Surprise

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Congratulations to the winners, all, um, none of you.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Only one day left, everyone. One day until the official return of baseball, until the 2021 season kicks off and brings with it hope that the nightmare of 2020 is finally really behind us. Even if the stands are at 30% capacity, the schedule appears to be at full capacity, which is all we can really hope for these days, I think.

In honour of this momentous occasion, the closing of training camp and the trip North, we should take this opportunity, this quiet moment before real baseball begins again, to revisit our Spring Surprises game from just over a month ago. It was a compressed spring training this year, which seemed to take away a few of the real out-of-nowhere guys’ chances to impress, but that’s okay. The biggest surprises are usually the ones that fail to last, if we’re being honest.

My own picks for breakout players this spring were Matthew Liberatore on the pitching side and Lars Nootbaar as a position player. Liberatore worked out pretty well for me, though ultimately I don’t think he was necessarily the guy who opened the most eyes in camp. (More on that in a minute.) Nootbaar, on the other hand, got a few at-bats early, didn’t look bad at all, but just didn’t really get into enough games to generate a ton of buzz. I’m not saying he would have even with more opportunities, necessarily; just reflecting on the fact that these things are always conditional on a player not only performing well, but also happening to be in the right place at the right time, as well.

As for the players who actually made the most noise, we’ll start on the position side of things. This really came down to a choice between two players, and it honestly wasn’t the easiest decision to make. Tyler O’Neill had himself a remarkable camp, showing much more of the contact quality and power we would usually expect from the Canadian strongman, rather than the endless parade of medium-deep fly balls he hit last year. On the downside, the plate discipline improvements O’Neill made in 2020 were really nowhere to be found this spring, as he struck out about 30% of the time and drew only two walks in 47 trips to the plate. Those numbers are not sustainable over the long haul if O’Neill is to be the kind of player it’s hoped he can be, but it’s also worth pointing out how misleading spring stats can be, depending on what a player might be working on at a given time. Also worth noting that O’Neill was hitting bullets all over the field this spring, so he was clearly working on the swing, rather than the approach. He also swiped three bases, which could be a very interesting new wrinkly in Tyler’s game if he can take that aspect of speed forward into the regular season.

As strong as O’Neill’s spring was, though, there was one hitter who had himself an even more exciting, more impressive camp, and that player was John Nogowski. Nogowski came into camp without any kind of clear route to making the big league team, and while he certainly benefitted from the injury to Harrison Bader in terms of a roster spot, he also pretty much forced the issue, posting an OBP near .500, an OPS of almost 1.000, and a 3:1 walk to strikeout ratio, which even in spring training is almost difficult to believe. Nogowski still doesn’t have the clearest route to meaningful playing time during the regular season, given the lack of a DH in the National League this year, but I’m hopeful he gets enough at-bats to prove he should get more. He’s been one of my favourite players in the Cards’ system for the past couple years, and it’s really exciting to see such an unusual profile get a shot.

Over on the pitching side, things were less clear. Honestly, there wasn’t a single pitcher in camp this year who just blew the doors off the place, announcing a new name to pay attention to with a velocity jump, or a new breaking ball, or just eye-popping strikeout numbers. The lack of one true standout probably contributed to the overall feeling of malaise surrounding the pitching staff, in fact, although the pitching staff also largely earned that general malaise.

Probably the strongest overall performer in camp this year on the pitching side was Jake Woodford, who put up a 0.79 ERA and a 12:3 strikeout to walk ratio in 11.1 innings. He didn’t really look much different than he has in the past, so this isn’t exactly a coming-out party sort of situation, but it was a very solid performance as part of a pitching staff that wasn’t exactly throwing up great stats for most of spring training.

Now, as for the winners of our game here at VEB, I have some bad news. We did not, in fact, have a winner this year. Absolutely no one picked Nogowski and Woodford, and in fact, not a single one of our respondents picked Jake Woodford at all. Kindred was the only commenter to mention Woodford’s name, and it was in response to someone else talking about Angel Rondon maneuvering into the callup conversation.

On the other hand, we did have several people select either Nogowski or Tyler O’Neill on the hitting side. TexCardFan popped Nogowski and Alex Reyes, who did have a strong camp this year, so he probably comes the closest to an overall winner we had this year, I think. Slippin’Jimmy89 and random both named O’Neill and Reyes, so respectable showings there.

In the end, this shortened, slightly strange spring training produced a lack of clarity in a lot of ways, and also failed to crown one single VEBer as prophet. Thank god there’s real baseball just around the corner, because the month of fake baseball we just watched didn’t get us where we wanted to go.